The culinary director for South Asian cuisines at Black Sheep Restaurants, chef Palash Mitra first learnt how to cook from his mother and grandmother while growing up in north India. After graduating from culinary school, he spent time at celebrity chef Vivek Singh’s The Cinnamon Club, Scarfes Bar at The Rosewood Hotel and Michelin-starred Gymkhana in London. Now, he oversees all of Black Sheep Restaurants’ South Asian establishments in Hong Kong: New Punjab Club, Hotal Colombo and Rajasthan Rifles.
How did you first get into cooking?
As far back as I can remember, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by good food pursued by family members who loved eating and cooking. I was massively influenced by my grandparents’ love of food. We grew up in an atmosphere where every meal was a celebration of the season’s new arrivals, the day’s fresh catch, and gifts of spices, jaggery, fruits and vegetables from distant relatives who were proud of their local produce. When my parents moved away from the ancestral family home to a city for better prospects, my mother continued this legacy of eating well and sensibly, though adapting to the local flavors and eating customs. Cooking has always felt natural to me.
What was the most important learning experience for you?
It was during a holiday at a friend’s farm where I learned the real meaning of good cooking. Growing up, we indulged in a lot of expensive products like the best hilsa, prawns, sweets, spices, chocolates and cheeses brought home from foreign travels. But living on the farm and eating off the land and waters around it made me realize the importance of respecting nature’s plentiful gifts. Everything tasted better, fresher and more satisfying. Teaching oneself how to cook with these “lesser” products and making them shine is the real reason a chef should cook.
What do you think are the most important attributes for a chef?
The will to get better with every passing day. You always need to seek new experiences and pick up new skills. A chef also has the responsibility to grow and develop the team. Be true to your roots, be humble, and keep in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Talent gets you to a point, but it’s the will that keeps you going.
Where do you get your culinary inspirations from?
From traveling, keeping abreast of the trends in the industry, and reading books, but most importantly from digging deep into my cultural history and heritage.
What are some common misconceptions about South Asian food, in your opinion?
Mostly that you can categorize the food of almost 2 billion people as “curry”. We are such a diverse region with so many sub-categories to our food. If you look at world cuisine, countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Japan all have curries, but they are definitely not the same thing, right?
At New Punjab Club we cook Punjabi food, which a lot of people assume is the same as “Indian” and so they expect a lot of vegetarian dishes. But Punjabi cuisine is actually quite survivalist. It is a war-torn migrant region so the cuisine is simplistic; people live off the land, so it’s a lot of grilled meats, breads and Black Label! Where Indians use numerous spices in each dish, Pakistanis typically use a single spice. For example, our dal makhani, which is one of the few non-grilled Pakistani dishes, uses only black cardamom.
In a city where it’s more common to order casual South Asian takeout rather than go to a high-end South Asian restaurant, did you encounter any challenges with New Punjab Club when it first opened?
Yes, but we definitely expected the pushback that we received when we first opened. There were guests who felt we were “too expensive for curry” and guests who were upset there weren’t more vegetarian dishes at an “Indian restaurant”. We knew we weren’t going to be for everyone, but we also had guests and team members from our part of the world who were so proud to be able to bring their friends to New Punjab Club and say, “this is a piece of my culture, this is where I’m from” in a way they had never really been able to do before.
We really felt like the work we were doing—elevating not just a cuisine, but a whole community—was important, so we just kept doing good work and ultimately received a Michelin star just 18 months after opening our doors. It felt like winning the World Cup, there were a lot of tears.
How do you see South Asian cuisine in Hong Kong evolving over the next few years?
South Asian cuisine has been here for a very long time. It is already a really big part of the city’s restaurant landscape. But I hope the work we are doing to shine a light on some of the more underrepresented South Asian sub-genres will just whet people’s appetites for more and encourage them to try new things. With more and more people travelling to places in South Asia for holidays, like Sri Lanka, we already feel a difference in the restaurants. We love when guests come to Hotal Colombo and tell us that they ate crab curry like ours at the beach on holiday!
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